As another cricket season came to an end in the gentle April sunshine at the Wanderers over the weekend, the obvious highlight of the summer was the South African side cementing their status as the best Test team in the world. Which raised the question as to whether our current crop of players is our most talented ever?
As someone who grew up in the 1970s and became a cricket fanatic in the 80s, I obviously have rose-tinted glasses when I think back to the stirring deeds of Barry Richards, Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten, Graeme Pollock, Clive Rice, Mike Procter and Vintcent van der Bijl.
And before them, Ali Bacher’s 1970 outfit that whitewashed Australia raised the profile of South African cricket to new levels: the 1971 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack described the result as “the humiliation that rocked the cricketing world” and said “South Africa possess the strongest side in the world today”.
That same side disappeared straight afterwards into Apartheid-enforced isolation and so many wonderful cricketers that came through in the late 1970s and early 80s would be lost to international cricket forever, making comparisons difficult to enter into.
In the old days, of course, South Africa only ever played in the relatively familiar surrounds of England, Australia and New Zealand; whereas the current national team have won impressively in every corner of the world, most notably in vastly different conditions in Asia.
Perhaps the best way to compare eras is to look at how the players were rated alongside their contemporaries, and in Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel, the current Proteas have seven players who would be in contention to play in a World XI.
The 1970s team featured upcoming stars like Pollock, Richards, Barlow, Lee Irvine and Procter; while Bacher, Tiger Lance, Denis Lindsay, Peter Pollock and Trevor Goddard were in the twilight of their careers.
But the depth of talent that was coming through later in the decade was incredible and there is no doubt in my mind that, were it not for Apartheid, South Africa would have remained the best side in the world, until the great West Indian team of the 1980s arrived with the force of the strongest Caribbean hurricane. The thought of those two teams meeting sends shivers down the spine.
The replacements for the handful of veterans that would have stepped down in the early 1970s are amongst the best cricketers of the era: Peter Kirsten, Clive Rice, Van der Bijl and Garth le Roux.
The way Richards, Barlow, Procter, Kirsten, Rice, Van der Bijl and Le Roux, as well as Cook, Kenny McEwan, Kepler Wessels and Hylton Ackerman dominated county cricket in those days suggests they were among the best cricketers in the world. The strength of county cricket was far stronger back then as the world’s top players sought to play in England much like the current giants strive to play in the IPL.
While Graeme Pollock and leg-spinner Denys Hobson did not play county cricket, their reputation was such that they were snapped up by the World Series Cricket organisers in Australia.
Marvellous cricketers like Ray Jennings, Henry Fotheringham, Kevin McKenzie, Anton Ferreira, Stephen Jefferies, Kenny Watson, Alan Kourie, Tich Smith, Rodney Ontong, Paddy Clift and Rupert Hanley also slipped off the ledge of history and were never able to fully display their talents. The same talent pool included the likes of Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Neal Radford, who threw in their lot with England. And we should not forget the victims on the other side of Apartheid, who lost far more than just sporting opportunity. Basil D’Oliveira and Omar Henry were able to make a name for themselves in mainstream cricket, but how good would Vincent Barnes, Cecil Abrahams, Tiffy Barnes, George Langa, Rushdie Magiet, Haroon Lorgat or Eric Petersen have been given the chance?
Expert opinion is always good, so who better to ask than Bacher himself.
“It is certainly the best Test team since our return to international cricket. We’ve been blessed to have many outstanding fast bowlers and history shows that is what makes a team successful. We had Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini in the 90s and now there’s Dale Steyn, Philander and Morkel.
“But where this team is different to all the others since 1991 is that they have four world-class batsmen averaging 50 or more – Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, that’s why they’re the best.
“But things are so different now, in 1970 we were amateurs and nowadays the bats are much thicker. In 1970, you had to hit the middle of the bat to get a boundary, but today edges go for four.
“How good was the 70s team? Well something to ponder is that in the third Test at the Wanderers, in the second innings I changed the batting order to Richards, Barlow, Bacher, Pollock, Irvine, Lindsay, Lance, Procter, Goddard, Pollock and Traicos. Goddard had opened the batting in the first innings, so we had enormously strong depth in batting.
“We were so powerful because of all our all-rounders – Barlow, Lance, Procter and Goddard, plus the wicketkeeper was Lindsay, who had scored more than 600 runs in the previous series. And Lee Irvine was our reserve wicketkeeper and there were potentially world-class cricketers – Clive Rice, Peter Kirsten, who was one of the best in the world at his peak, Kenny McEwan, Vince van der Bijl and Denys Hobson – to come,” Bacher says.
And how good were the cricketers of the 1980s?
Kourie, a key member of the Transvaal Mean Machine that dominated South African cricket, says his own provincial team were as strong as an international side.
“As far as the Transvaal team goes, it was said then that we would be the only team able to beat the West Indies international team,” the best local spinner of the 1980s says.
Wessels, who played for Australia from 1982 to 1986, strikes a cautionary note, however.
“The West Indies of course blew away everything in the early 80s, including a strong Australian team. They would have been very difficult to beat, but I think it would have been a good contest. They had a superb pace attack, so our frontline would have been under pressure. But then we had very good batsmen, certainly there’s been nothing better,” Wessels said.
It is a tough call, but for me, a team comprising Richards, Cook, Kirsten, Pollock, Barlow, Rice, Procter, Jennings, Le Roux, Van der Bijl and Hobson is going to have the edge over the current Proteas.
The difference one world-class all-rounder makes is plain when we consider how important Kallis is to the current team. Their challengers had three: Barlow (18,212 runs @ 39.16 & 571 wkts @ 24.14), Rice (26,331 runs @ 40.95 & 930 wkts @ 22.49) and Procter (21,936 runs @ 36.01 & 1,417 wkts @ 19.53).
The top four batting is on a par with the current team with Richards and Pollock considered among the best to have ever played the game, while Van der Bijl (767 wkts @ 16.54) is a cross between the accuracy and seam movement of Philander and the steep bounce of Morkel.
Hobson is perhaps the least known of the team, but is highly rated by Peter Kirsten: “We’ve never really been blessed with spinners, but Denys Hobson was a true leggie in the Shane Warne mould. He spun it and he had a googly.”
Of course, there is plenty of time for the current team to make even bigger names for themselves and the debate is a wonderful way of reliving all the great summers that have gone before as winter is chilling our bones. DM
Ken Borland hails from the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal and was educated in the Midlands before going to Joburg in 2004. For a small fee, he'll write or talk about anything and has been a contributor for Reuters, SuperSport, the BBC, various other radio stations around the world, and Midi Olympique. He has covered rugby and cricket World Cups and, even though his own game is a disgrace, numerous golf tournaments. In fact, he took up writing when it became clear he was not going to be actually playing in the big stadiums, no matter how keen he was! When he's not around a sports field somewhere, Ken is invariably in the bush, birdwatching, although the sea and its conchological riches also fascinate him. He is a keen follower of music and movies.
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